Presented on Wednesday, May 18, 2012 in the Barn at Quarry Farm. "Unconscious cerebration," "unconscious plagiarism," "mental telegraphy" - Mark Twain had various names for what the brain seemingly does beyond our consciousness. Tom Sawyer mutters in his sleep the truth about the murder of Doc Robinson. Tom Canty, the pauper disguised as the prince, reveals his identity to his mother by his uncontrollable reflex action of shielding his eyes when startled. Hank Morgan, the Connecticut Yankee, delights in what he calls "prophecy," in which he issues from his mouth when he disengages his conscious mind from his talk. Mr. X, a steamboat pilot in Life on the Mississippi, navigates a tricky part of the river while sleepwalking and does it more surely and skillfully than if he had been awake. Pudd'nhead Wilson can't figure out why the fingerprint record for Tom Driscoll changes until he falls asleep, and his unconscious mind supplies the realization that Tom and Chambers were switched in the cradles. This talk will survey Mark Twain's ideas about the unconscious actions of the brain, situate these ideas in the burgeoning physiological psychology of his time, and suggest how Mark Twain can serve as a guide for us, as we encounter new, neuroscientific conceptions of the mind and the unconscious.
Randall Knoper is the author of Acting Naturally: Mark Twain in the Culture of Performance and of various essays about Mark Twain and other authors from the period of American literary realism. He teaches English and American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is currently researching and writing about nineteenth-century American literature and sciences of the brain and nervous system.